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#130

Alternate Choreography



             The night was classic early November: dark, windy, restless. The corn fields around Multioak had been harvested and left exposed and barren until spring, at which point the farmers, if they were still interested in farming, would till them up again. Maya, a first year choir teacher at Multioak High School, lived in her deceased grandparents’ house out in the country. She spent a lot of time in her car. It was a twenty-plus minute drive into town for school every day and then those same twenty-plus minutes home to change clothes, grab a quick meal, and let the dog out before heading back to school for Eliteen Choir Christmas Spectacle Festival rehearsal. Then, two and a half hours later, Maya would get back in her car and head home to watch TV and browse the internet and ward off panic in bed until she fell asleep.

                Tonight’s rehearsal, continuing the recent trend, had not gone well. The Eliteen Choir’s execution of the choreography was not improving, which was especially galling since they were supposed to be superior, the fifteen best members of the General Choir. They were supposed to be elite teens. At least in terms of choral excellence. Maya knew that some of the students resented her for not being a cool teacher even though she was young, but she felt no obligation to be cool and considered any effort to make her students consider her cool a waste of time. She just wanted the choir to get the choreography right and it was starting to seem like that might never happen. It was starting to seem like there was more to it than mere lack of coordination, mere incompetence, mere teenage apathy. It was starting to seem like there might be a plot afoot.

Davis, a sophomore with a mediocre voice whom Maya had granted a substantial solo in exchange for a reliable stream of inside information, was becoming more and more hesitant to rat out his fellow choir members. He hadn’t given Maya anything useful in over a week and his high, quavering voice sounded worse than ever. And Maya saw the way the other students looked at her, especially Madison and Addison, so she was almost sure something was up, but tonight when she had called Davis into her office to question him, he’d just avoided eye contact and shrugged and mumbled something about a girl named Bailey’s plan to skip a rehearsal so she could accompany her boyfriend to a local pro wrestling event.

                As Maya brooded over her treacherous students, she broke free of the Multioak city limits and accelerated to 55 miles per hour as she headed east towards home. After choir rehearsal, Maya preferred silence in the car. Any kind of music at all only served to remind her of the limits of her students’ musical ability and then that served to remind her of how bad they were with the choreography, although she didn’t really need reminding since that was mostly what she thought about these days in the car, at home, at school, everywhere.

The darkness squeezed in on her car’s headlights so that Maya could see nothing but the rough, unlined road right in front of her. And it was into this shifting patch of illuminated pavement that the deer stepped, a big doe in profile, crossing the road from right to left. Maya gasped and stamped on the brake, cranking the wheel to the right, swerving onto the dirt shoulder. The car skidded to a halt halfway off the road. Maya twisted to look out the back window, but she couldn’t see the deer in the darkness. It was gone. Maya shifted the car into park and sat with the engine running, steadying her breathing, willing herself calm. She had missed the deer by several yards, but that was still far too close for her liking. Just seeing the deer on the road had rattled her.

When she felt collected enough to drive again, Maya pulled back onto the road, accelerated to a cautious 35 miles per hour, rounded a corner, and struck a small buck head on. Maya shouted and slammed on the brakes right before the point of contact, tires screeching as the deer bounced backwards off the front of the car and sprawled on the blacktop, flailing its legs in the air. It lay still for a moment, dazed, and then struggled back to its feet and hobbled away into the night. This time, Maya didn’t wait for calm. She only wanted to get home as soon as she could. She took her foot off the brake and accelerated to 30 miles per hour, straining to see beyond the reach of her headlights. A mile down the road, a leaping deer collided with the passenger’s side of Maya’s car, snapping the side view mirror off and denting the door. Maya yelled, more in anger and outrage than in fright, stopping only for a second before forging ahead. She didn’t see if the deer was a doe or a buck, if it survived the collision, nothing. She kept driving. She was almost home.  

 

The next morning when she got to school, Maya’s fellow teacher and friend-who-she’d-been-on-a-few-dates-with Dorian arrived at the same time and parked his truck next to her car in the faculty lot. “Hit a deer, huh?” said Dorian. “Looks like some fur stuck in the grill there.” He stood in front of Maya’s car and sipped gas station coffee, his bag slung over his shoulder. He wore a hunter’s orange stocking cap and a brown leather jacket. He had dark circles under his eyes.

“I hit two deer,” said Maya. “And almost hit a third one.”

“Yep,” said Dorian. “They’re moving. Of course, I was in my tree stand for two hours this morning in this wet and cold and I didn’t see a single one. You get three running right at you while you’re driving home. Must’ve been something in the air last night.”

“It was crazy,” said Maya. “I was terrified. I lost a mirror. And look at these dents.”

“You’ve got a lot of fields around you out there,” said Dorian. “Driving after dark can be a little scary this time of year.”

“I have to,” said Maya. “I’ve got rehearsal every night, remember?”

“Oh yeah,” said Dorian. “How’s that going? Are the kids all still conspiring against you?”

“Yes,” said Maya. She turned and walked towards the school. She knew Dorian found her paranoia amusing, but she did not find his amusement amusing at all.

“How’s your mole?” asked Dorian, hurrying after her.

“He’s fine,” said Maya. She didn’t feel like explaining to Dorian that her mole was not fine. Dorian was a shop teacher who resolutely refused to coach or sponsor anything extracurricular. He never had to worry about his students plotting to ruin him in a public forum.

“Have a good day,” said Dorian as he and Maya entered the school and turned to go their separate ways. “Be safe on the way home from rehearsal tonight. Just keep your eyes open.”

“I’ll be fine,” said Maya. As she walked to the choir room, Maya saw Addison and Madison standing by their lockers talking in hushed tones. When the girls saw Maya, they fell silent and looked intently at their respective phones, but when Maya was past, she heard their murmuring begin again and felt their eyes on her unprotected back.

 

That night, the students were well behaved and rehearsal went smoothly. The songs still sounded bad and the choreography was still well short of being anything but a disaster, but there were small signs of progress. Maya didn’t trust any of it. If anything the small signs of progress worried her more. She wasn’t going to let herself be lulled into a false sense of security. Davis gave her no information. Maya thought that even a bad mole would try to come up with something to tell her, but not Davis. He stood by the door in her office with his hand on the knob, his whole posture pleading for release.

“I know something’s going on,” said Maya. “And I know who the ringleaders are. If you don’t turn up something useful for me, Davis, I’m giving your solo to someone else.”

“Please don’t,” said Davis. “My grandma’s flying in from Denmark to see my solo.”

“If you don’t help me stop whatever the other students are planning, there won’t be a Christmas Spectacle Festival at all,” said Maya.

“You don’t know that,” said Davis, and he left the office without being dismissed.

The night was not as dark as the previous night. The cloud cover had dissipated early in the evening and a half moon shone down on the picked-over countryside. It may have been this additional light that gave Maya enough warning to mash her brakes and stop two feet short of hitting the doe that stepped into the road and stopped in front her car. As Maya watched, her breathing rapid and shallow, the doe turned sideways and took a few halting steps forward, then backward. Maya couldn’t tell if the deer’s solid-black eye was looking at her or not. She honked the horn but the deer didn’t seem to notice. Maya shifted her car into reverse and slowly backed up. The deer walked in a small circle as if unsure of what it wanted, of where it should go next. As Maya shifted the car back into drive and tried to ease her way around the deer, it stepped in front of her car again and stopped. Maya nudged the deer with her bumper in an effort to coax it out of the way, but it didn’t move, instead turning its head to look her square in the face. Maya backed up fast, executed a quick three point turn, and roared away in the opposite direction. When she looked in the rearview mirror, the deer was gone. She looked back at the road just as a big buck ran directly into her path. Maya swerved but not enough. The front right corner of her car hit the deer just behind its front left leg and sent it spinning and rolling along the side of the road. Maya stopped her car and left it idling as she jogged back to the deer’s crumpled body. The buck was either dead or else whatever life remained was buried so far inside its broken body as to be undetectable.

“What is wrong with you?” asked Maya, standing over the dead deer and shivering. “All of you!”

She drove to her house at 10 miles per hour, leaning low over the steering wheel, scanning both sides of the road. Five more times, deer stepped in front of her car. Three does, a buck, and a fawn. Each time, Maya maneuvered around them as they wandered over the pavement in apparent confusion or simply stood still and watched her pass. When Maya got home, she almost expected to find deer blocking the entrance to her driveway, but her driveway was clear.

The next day, Maya was relieved to see that Dorian’s truck was already in the lot when she arrived at school. She didn’t want him to ask her about the shattered headlight and new dents in her car’s front end. During choir class, Maya announced that afterschool rehearsals were canceled until further notice. The class reacted with a low buzz of conversation, but Maya couldn’t discern its tone. It didn’t seem not sinister. She asked Davis to stay after class, but when the bell rang, he left with the rest of the students without even glancing at her.

 

Days passed. Maya made sure she was safely home from school every evening before 5 and didn’t get back into her car until the following day. Once it got dark, she stayed off the road entirely, only leaving the safety of her house to take her dog out for brief bathroom breaks in the field adjacent to her back yard. She also informed her principal that, for her own well-being, she would not be leaving for work until it was sufficiently light in the morning, which the principal was not thrilled about, but decided was fine as a temporary measure since Maya had her prep period first and was, after all, only the choir teacher.

Dorian pointed out that Maya hadn’t had any trouble on the mornings of the days when she’d hit the deer, that she’d only seen the deer at night, but Dorian had a lot to say about deer that Maya wasn’t interested in hearing, like how he also lived out in the country and also drove at night and he hadn’t hit or almost hit any deer at all so it must just be a weird coincidence that she’d seen so many.

“I’m not driving in the dark anymore,” said Maya. She and Dorian had run into each other in the hall between periods. Maya was examining mysterious graffiti on the bulletin board outside her classroom. Dorian didn’t usually venture far from the shop room unless he had to make copies, which is what he was on his way to do now.

“But for how long?” asked Dorian.

“Until the deer are gone,” said Maya. “I’ll drive in the dark again when they calm down. When is that?”

“November’s the worst,” said Dorian. “But we’ve got deer around here all year long. There’s always the risk of some deer jumping in front of your car.”

“What does this mean to you?” asked Maya, pointing at a spot on the bulletin board.

Dorian leaned close. “It looks like someone scribbled over some words with black pen. I can’t make out what it says.”

“Right,” said Maya. “But what did it say? How long was it there? Who was the message for? Does this part look like it could have been the word ‘choreography?’ Or ‘choreograph?’ Or ‘choreographer?’”

“Speaking of which,” said Dorian. “How’s the show coming with no night rehearsals?”

“Terrible,” said Maya. “It’s collapsing in on itself.”

“Sounds like you could use those night rehearsals,” said Dorian, and he departed to make his stupid copies.

 

The mechanic Maya visited on Saturday to have her headlight repaired operated out of his own garage. There were nine sad vehicles lined up in his front yard. Maya had driven by his house several times while running errands, and she could just tell by his trashy property and poorly-made “Autos Mechanic” sign that he was the cheapest option in town.

“Might take me a few days to get a headlight,” said the mechanic. “I’ll check the scrap yard first and go from there.” He wore greasy gray jeans and a heavy black coat. His hair was thick and white and looked too clean to belong to him. “How many deer did you say you hit?”

Maya and the mechanic stood in front of the car just outside the mechanic’s open garage. “I hit two,” said Maya. “And another one hit me. And I saw…I don’t even know how many more. Eight or so, I think. I’ve never seen anything like it. I don’t drive in the dark anymore.”

“This was all in two nights?” asked the mechanic, wiping a gleaming silver wrench with a filthy rag.

Maya nodded.

“And you never hit a deer before this?”

“No,” said Maya. “Never.”

“Might just be a bad run of luck,” said the mechanic. “Or it might be the car.”

“The car?”

The mechanic walked around to the passenger’s side of the car and placed his hands on its roof, looking down at the dented door. “Some cars draw deer. Strange phenomenon. Everything’s normal and then all the sudden it’s like deer are magnetized to them. Who knows why? Something changes. Like they get cursed.”

“Yes, magnetized!”said Maya. “That’s what it’s like! Who curses the cars? Can teenagers do it?”

The mechanic shook his head. “I don’t think anyone in particular curses the cars. It just happens somehow. A lot of stuff about how cars work is a mystery to us. Don’t let those slick, fancy, expensive ‘technicians’ fool you. There’s a lot we don’t know. A lot the people who design and build them don’t know. But I’ve had some experience with cars with the deer curse before and they don’t last long once it kicks in. Usually a few close calls and then a direct hit totals ‘em.”

“What am I going to do?” asked Maya. “I can’t afford a new car and I can’t not drive at night forever.”

“I’ll tell you what,” said the mechanic. “Borrow one of these cars here. Try it out at night. Go slow, be careful, and see what happens. If you don’t see any deer, well, maybe that means your car’s cursed and maybe it doesn’t. But either way, we’ll have some more information to work with and you’ll have something to drive while I’m finding that headlight and getting these dents out, if I can.”

That night after supper, Maya took the car she’d borrowed from the mechanic out for a short, exploratory trip. The car’s interior smelled like gasoline, there was a five-inch crack in the windshield and there were several coins fused to the bottom of the cup holder. It had been the nicest available option by far. Maya, stopping and starting, her eyes constantly scanning the road and both shoulders, made it a little less than a hundred yards out of her driveway before a leaping buck failed to clear the front end of the car and crashed down on its hood, one flailing hoof striking the windshield so that it cracked all over in a giant spider web shape. After the deer rolled off the hood and onto the pavement, got its hooves under it again, and ran away, Maya pulled the car over onto the shoulder, turned it off, got out, locked it, and walked home. She called in sick to school the next day. Sitting at home in her pajamas during the period of time when she would have been teaching the Eliteen Choir class, Maya could feel the Christmas Spectacle Festival choreography worsening.

 

“So it’s not the car that’s attracting the deer,” said the mechanic. He didn’t seem too distraught by the condition of the car he’d loaned to Maya. She’d called him after lunch and he’d agreed to come to her since she couldn’t drive to him with the car’s windshield no longer conducive to viewing the road nor the potential hazards therein. Maya and the mechanic sat at Maya’s kitchen table. The mechanic nibbled at a granola bar he’d produced unwrapped and in a partially eaten state from inside his overalls. Maya drank bottled water.

“So it’s me,” said Maya.

“I think,” said the mechanic. “That it’s you.”

“Can I be cured?” asked Maya. “Can the curse be lifted?”

“I have no idea if you can be cured or if the curse can be lifted,” said the mechanic. “But I do have another idea.”

“What is it?” asked Maya.

“Better come outside to my truck,” said the mechanic. “You won’t want this in the house.”

 

The scent blocker that the mechanic’s friend manufactured in his basement smelled terrible. It was like bread mold, citrus, and pubescent boy sweat. But it worked. Maya tested it three times on short nighttime drives near her house and saw no deer, not a single fleeting glimpse.

At school, she continued to skip first period just to be on the safe side, but she started evening Christmas Spectacle Festival rehearsals up again as quickly as she could.  They could not afford to miss any more days. The choreography seemed to be slipping farther out of reach, but no one could deny that Maya was present and trying to fix it. Every night when rehearsal was over, Maya would wait until the last student left, douse herself in the repulsive scent blocker, and drive home with all the windows down in hopes that the stench wouldn’t permanently infect the upholstery. Then, when she arrived at her house, Maya would take her clothes off in the garage, seal them in a black garbage bag, and sprint through the house to the bathroom for a long, thorough shower before returning for the clothes and running them through the washing machine. Despite these precautions, traces of the scent blocker were always present in the house. And it was even stronger in the car, clinging faintly to Maya every morning after she drove to school. She knew her students smelled it on her. She saw their wrinkling noses, heard their giggling whispering. But she had no choice. She did not explain the smell to anyone. She pretended it wasn’t there. She avoided Dorian entirely. She did not want to hear his opinion.

And every day, she waited for her students to spring their trap, for Madison or Addison or both to give the signal that would bring their plot to fruition. Davis told Maya that he would no longer be supplying her with information and went completely silent. Maya took his solo away, but he wouldn’t budge. Maya was in the dark. She smelled bad. And she was alone.

 

On the Saturday night five days before Thanksgiving, Maya was in bed with her laptop writing a long, complaining email to a happily married college friend who lived in another state when her phone rang. It was Davis.

“They have alternate choreography,” he said. “For the whole show. The choir’s been meeting at Addison’s house after rehearsal every night and on weekends to do the real rehearsals. The night of the show, they’re just going to do what we’ve been rehearsing there instead of what we’ve been rehearsing at your rehearsals. That’s the plan. To do Madison and Addison’s show instead of your show.”

“Why are you telling me this now?” asked Maya. Her body felt cold, heavy, weak.

“They promised me two solos,” said Davis. “But now they’re saying I don’t sing well enough and they’re cutting both solos even though my grandma’s flying all the way from Denmark to see me sing solos.”

“What can I do?” asked Maya. “How can I stop them?”

“Don’t ask me!” said Davis. “I thought you’d have a plan!”

“How good is the alternate choreography?” asked Maya.

“Oh, it’s great,” said Davis. “Pretty racy, though. Are you going to be able to protect me? I’m exposed here and you’re not giving me much confidence that this is all gonna turn out OK. I really need that solo back. My grandma-”

“Denmark! I know!” shouted Maya, and she hung up the phone.

Outside, the whole sky was colored in shades of pink. Maya wondered why. There was no explanation for it. She doubted anyone in the world could adequately explain the sky’s pinkness to her. Her dog sniffed around the perimeter of the small shed that housed her riding lawn mower. Maya stood by the edge of the field facing her house with the hood on her blue winter coat pulled up over her head. She watched a family of bats fly from the big tree in her back yard, around the side of her house where she realized they must have found a way into her attic, and back again. She didn’t really know the bats were a family, but she assumed they were because there was a big one that seemed like a dad, a somewhat smaller one that seemed like a mom, and two much smaller ones that seemed like children. Maya didn’t really know anything about typical bat behavior either, but the bat family’s behavior seemed like it should be typical bat behavior even if it actually wasn’t typical. The bat family wasn’t endangering her or freaking her out or interfering with her routines or causing her to sacrifice bits of her dignity in order to compensate for their behavior. Maya found the bat family refreshing, their fluttery, flappy little silhouettes black against the inexplicably pink sky.

Maya went inside and sent an email to the Eliteen Choir canceling all Christmas Spectacle Festival rehearsals until after Thanksgiving, even the rehearsals during the school day. The members of the Eliteen Choir were to bring homework materials to class which would function as a study hall until further notice. Maya did not give the students an explanation. They did not deserve one.

 

Maya’s parents hosted Thanksgiving at their house. They lived an hour and a half away from Maya, which she found to be the ideal distance. Maya invited Dorian because he didn’t have anywhere to go to celebrate and she felt somewhat guilty about avoiding him since she’d started using the scent blocker. She did, however, tell Dorian that he could only come if he agreed to drive them both to Maya’s parents’ house in his car. He also had to agree that the driving would only take place during daylight hours. They would drive up on Thursday morning, have Thanksgiving dinner with Maya’s parents, spend the night, and drive back on Friday afternoon. Dorian wisely agreed without questioning.

Dinner was served shortly after noon. Maya, Dorian, her mom, and her dad sat around the dining room table in the cramped modular home. Maya’s dad prayed and then they all ate turkey and rolls and so on.

“Maya should have hosted, really,” said her mom. “She lives in the house we always had Thanksgiving in when I was growing up. So many memories.”

“You were 26 when grandpa and grandma moved into that house,” said Maya.

Dessert was cherry pie. No one in Maya’s family liked pumpkin pie, not even her extended family. Dorian said that he did like pumpkin pie, but that he also liked cherry pie. He listed several other kinds of pie that he liked too. Maya’s dad chimed in whenever Dorian mentioned a pie that he too enjoyed. Maya’s mom declared that she liked all pies except pumpkin. Dorian mentioned his distaste for rhubarb pie and Maya’s father pretended to be personally offended, which everyone else pretended was funny.

The afternoon passed in a slow, dozy haze. Maya’s mom asked her how rehearsal was going and Maya said it was going fine even though the mere mention of it had elicited a bitter, acidic pang in her mouth and stomach. Dorian and Maya’s dad talked about hunting deer.

“They’ve been thick around here,” said Maya’s dad. “Seen quite a few busted up on the road.”

Dorian looked at Maya like he expected her to say something, but she did not and she would not. Her parents were not the kind to process strange information well. If they heard about the deer and the curse and the scent blocker and everything else, Maya would be stuck explaining it to them for the rest of their lives.

That night, Dorian slept in Maya’s old bedroom because her old bedroom was now called “the guest room” and he was the guest. Maya was stuck sleeping on the couch in the living room. She wore sweatpants, a sweatshirt, and thick socks not because she was cold, but because the blanket with which her mom had provided her didn’t feel good against her skin. It was scratchy. Her parents’ living room was not dark enough for Maya’s taste, so she turned her face towards the back of the couch and positioned one of her two pillows over her head. And then, instead of sleeping, she thought.

She thought about how it only takes one person to screw up the choreography. One person who’s a step behind, one person who’s unsure, who has to think before acting. One person too afraid of blowing it to do anything but blow it. And the chain reaction, then. Those who know what they’re doing trying to make up for the lone screw-up’s clumsiness. Distracted, agitated, their perfectly ordered movements losing precision, coming undone until it’s all a mess, a broad, gross parody of the choreography as it was conceived.

Maya got up from the couch and walked down the hall to her former bedroom, the guest room, and tapped on the door before pushing it open. “Dorian,” she whispered. “I need your car keys. I left my medicine in your car.”

“They’re in my left shoe,” said Dorian. “By the front door.” He didn’t know that Maya hadn’t left any medicine in his car. She hadn’t even brought medicine. She didn’t even own medicine. And even if she did own medicine and had brought it with her and had left it in his car, she wouldn’t have decided she needed to get it right now. Well, depending on what the medicine was for. Sleeping pills would have made sense, for instance. Were sleeping pills medicine? Anyway, regardless, whatever, Dorian didn’t know anything.

 

Maya drove Dorian’s car to the end of her parents’ long driveway and stopped, sniffing her own shoulders, the backs of her own hands. She smelled strongly of herself. She pulled the car out onto the narrow county road and pressed down on the accelerator. It only took a minute for the first deer to run in front of her. Maya didn’t brake or swerve. She missed the deer’s bounding back hooves by what looked like inches. Maya didn’t slow down. She sped up. The next deer appeared in the road a minute later. It stepped directly into Maya’s path, stopped, and backed up as Maya flew past, turning her head just in time to see the deer’s exhalation fog the exterior of the passenger’s side window. Maya set her cruise control at 60 miles per hour and rested both feet flat on the floor.

Thirty seconds later, a huge buck leaped from right to left over the hood of Maya’s car as she drove and was not struck. Then, a small, elegant doe leaped from left to right over the hood of Maya’s car and it too was not struck.

And then the deer appeared in a constant stream and from all sides, darting across the road in front of Maya as she barreled ahead, flashing in and out of the headlights, leaping and bounding and prancing, zig-zagging on the blacktop, always evading certain-death collisions at the last possible instant. They came in pairs, in groups of three or four, dangerously close to crashing into each other as well, but never doing so, never stumbling or faltering or hesitating. Maya followed the road over hills and around curves and always found deer waiting for her there, springing clear right when it seemed like they weren’t going to, like they wouldn’t be capable. Maya saw hooves flash beyond the driver’s side window and realized there were deer leaping over the top of the car too. She looked in the rearview mirror and saw a deer leap over the car’s trunk, then another. On a long straightaway, she closed her eyes for a few seconds and other than a slight vibration and the sound of the engine, she could have been back on her parents’ couch. She opened her eyes again to see the sublimely synchronized crossing of deer continuing unabated. Maya didn’t know how long it would last, but she didn’t dare stop or slow down or do anything except drive onward until it reached its climax. Until a mistake, by her or one of them, brought it all to shattering, crunching, bloody halt. Or until, with Maya and each deer performing their parts to perfection, they arrived together at the grand finale, the encore, and the end.




Discussion Questions

  • What’s the most deer you’ve hit with a car in a single night? One? Two? Eight? TWENTY?!



  • If you have a run of bad luck, are you more likely to assume that something you OWN is cursed or that YOU are cursed? Explain why this is the case using “psychological terminology.”



  • Why do deer get transfixed by approaching headlights? I suppose instead of asking you, I could just Google it.



  • Rank the following elements of a high school choir production from most important to least important: Music, Choreography.



  • Are soloists always chosen based on singing ability? Or, much as I hate to suggest such a thing, does the choice of a soloist occasionally come down to politics?



  • This week, try surrendering to someone else’s vision. Take note of whether doing so leads you to transcendent beauty or your complete destruction. Would you consider surrendering to someone else’s vision again?